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Dispersal strategies and spatial organization of vegetation in arid ecosystems


  • Y. Pueyo,

  • S. Kefi,

  • C. L. Alados,

  • M. Rietkerk

Y. Pueyo (, S. Kéfi and M. Rietkerk, Dept of Environmental Sciences, Copernicus Inst., Utrecht Univ., PO Box 80115, NL–3508 TC Utrecht, the Netherlands. – C. L. Alados, Inst. Pirenaico de Ecología (CSIC). Avda. Montañana 1005, PO Box 13034, ES–50192 Zaragoza, Spain.


Seed dispersal and establishment are critical stages for plants in arid environments, where vegetation is spatially organized in patches with suitable and unsuitable sites for establishment. Theoretical studies suggest that the ability of vegetation to self-organize in patchy spatial patterns is a critical property for plant survival in arid environments, and is a consequence of a scale-dependent feedback between plants and resource availability. Field observations show that plants of arid environments evolved towards short dispersal distance (proxichory) and that the investment in reproduction increases along an aridity gradient. Here, we investigated how plant dispersal strategies affect spatial organization and associated scale-dependent feedback in arid ecosystems. We addressed this research question using a model where the spatio-temporal vegetation patterns were driven by scale-dependent feedbacks between plants and soil water availability. In the model, water availability limited vegetation growth, seed production and establishment ability. Seed dispersal was modelled with an integrodifferential equation that mimicked important plant dispersal characteristics (i.e. fecundity, mean dispersal distance and establishment ability). Results showed that, when the investment in fecundity was relatively high, short seed dispersal helped maintaining higher mean biomass in the system, improving the vegetation efficiency in water use. However, higher fecundity induced a large cost, and high mean biomass could be sustained only with high establishment ability. Considering low establishment ability, intermediate fecundity was more efficient than low fecundity in maintaining high plant biomass under the most arid conditions. Consistently, plant dispersal strategies that maintained more biomass were related to a vegetation spatial organization that allowed the most efficient soil water redistribution, through the strengthening of the scale-dependent feedback. The efficient dispersal strategies and spatial patterns in the model are commonly observed in plants of arid environments. Thus, dispersal strategies in arid environments might contribute to a favourable spatial organization and associated scale-dependent feedback.